Written for and published by The Rights Collective.
The definition of caste
Caste is an identification and social stratification system acquired through birth and often sustained by endogamy. Caste, although closely interlinked, is distinct from class, race and ethnicity. It is a form of association and social capital and a form of social separation and ranking. Caste has historically restricted and penalised individuals through various exclusions in arenas of education, health, employment, politics and personal life1.
Practically, the organising principles of caste are based on a hierarchy with those “at the top” being perceived to be the purest and able to enjoy social privilege and entitlement, whereas those “at the bottom” are perceived to be polluted, untouchable and their very existence is considered a punishment for their sins.
Historically, those “at the bottom” of the rung served society in tasks that were considered lowly and beneath society. Socially, they were prevented from walking on the same roads as those belonging to higher castes, not allowed to drink from the same water source, and not permitted to “contaminate” the eating vessels. They were even prohibited from praying to certain Gods, could not enter certain temples and had different schools, should they be fortunate enough to be able to go to school at all2.
Whilst Article 15 of the Indian Constitution (1950) has outlawed caste discrimination3; there is still very much a practical and ideological practice of caste and caste discrimination that exists in India and anywhere Indians have migrated. Citing the National Crimes Record Bureau, author Arundhati Roy, in The Doctor and the Saint, scraped the surface of the tribulations faced by Dalits or Scheduled castes in India4. She writes,
“A crime is committed against a Dalit by a non-Dalit every sixteen minutes; every day more than four untouchable women are raped by Touchables; every week thirteen Dalits are murdered and six Dalits are kidnapped. In 2012 alone…1,547 Dalit women were raped and 651 Dalits were murdered. That’s just the rape and butchery. Not the stripping and parading naked, the forced shit-eating (literally), the seizing of land, the social boycotts, the restriction to access of drinking water”.
Not only do the discriminatory practices exist in the subcontinent – the mindset has migrated and reinforced across borders – in the places we call home, and as such we have a duty to understand, challenge and rectify something that sits deep within our communities, within our cities and towns and somewhere deep within our psyche. It must be understood so that it can be challenged and amended.
The origins of caste
The origins of the caste system can be traced to the Rigveda, a collection of ancient Sanskrit texts. The creation story describes the division of Purusha, a primordial being, into four varnas, or castes, namely, the Brahmins from the mouth, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaisyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet. Each had specific roles from a divine and social perspective. The Brahmins were priests ordained to recite and teach the Vedic scripts; the Kshatriyas were warriors who protected society; the Vaisyas were merchants who engaged in trade, financial and agricultural matters; and the Shudras were the labourers who served society. A fifth category, excluded from the varna system, comprises of “untouchables”, later Dalits.
Dalit is a political term, which means broken in Marathi. This term has also been used interchangeably with Scheduled Caste. It is a political umbrella term, which includes individuals from various castes who have been subjected to the practices of untouchability.
Caste-based discrimination was firmly embedded by the 2nd Century CE with the compilation of the Law Code of Manu, an influential Hindu text citing decrees and regulations and ideas on purity and piety. The laws were caste-based and placed the severest sanctions on Shudras, whilst establishing the Brahmins as conciliators, things worldly and divine. Logistically, the enforcement of the Code varied depending on local practices and it was the British implementation of these laws, which exacerbated already existing caste discrimination, which persists today5.
The British Raj
The administrative, logistical and scientific flaws by the British influenced not only the colonial policies relating to structuring and politicisation of caste and state sanctioned hierarchy; they have also arguably led to sustained discrimination and enduring toxic outcomes for Dalits today.
The East India Company’s First Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, in 1772 directed its courts to pass verdicts based on the Law Code of Manu and to formalise caste law6. Given that the Code was in Sanskrit and not an area of remote expertise for the British, there was a heavy reliance upon the educated Brahmins to interpret, translate and accordingly advise the British. Through this, the state consolidated higher caste privileges and enshrined it within governmental legitimacy and thus tighten the “Brahminical grip” on British India’s subjects. The regressive practices of caste-based discrimination were not lost upon the British and it was recognised that the institution’s enablement of caste was a significant impediment to India’s social progress. This realisation was exploited for British gains.
The East India Company, and subsequently the British Raj, had interests centred on cost cutting, raising revenue and firming their grips on the country they ruled. Thus, there was no incentive to dismantle the caste-based system and the associated impact of caste-based discrimination. Rather, the caste-based divide offered lucrative means of control for the British.
Some stated that although “barbaric”, caste was the fabric of Indian society and thus did not warrant governmental interference unless it specifically affected the state. Some took the view that by dismantling caste in the name of human rights the repercussions would entail revolution and anarchy. The Vellore Mutiny (1801) and Sepoy Mutiny (1857) led the British to spend a significant amount of time, effort and financial input to gain a fuller understanding of the local Indian demographics in order to find allies against future uprisings as well as local aid in stamping out potential revolutions7. Indeed, the caste-based system proved beneficial for the British Raj not only financially, but also, diplomatically. Encouraging discord between different caste groups made a unified Indian front against the Crown an unlikely endeavour and therefore a way of assuring continued British rule.
British departure from India came with the Partition of 1947, which saw the formation of a new nation, Pakistan. During the Partition, the eastern province of Bengal was split into a Hindu majority province (West Bengal) and a Muslim majority nation of East Pakistan, which is present-day Bangladesh.
The national and provincial borders came at a cost of one million lives and twelve million displaced peoples, arguably, the bloodiest mass migration in history. The Independence from the British was followed by a personal and state wealth, communal violence, and loss of lives. Quite aptly summarised by the prolific author Khushwant Singh8;
“The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped”.
The communal violence associated with the Partition is often presented as only between Hindus and Muslims. Embroiled on both sides of the partition and bearing the brunt of it to present day were the Namasudras.
The Namasudras, a Scheduled Caste, were largely situated in East Bengal. During independence, Namasudras were involved in discussions and negotiations with political stakeholders under the Dalit movement to secure equality and social justice. Their support was needed politically, and they were promised political representation for a move to the “Hindu West”; what transpired was effectively minimal political involvement, ineffective mobilisation and a geographical displacement coming at a personal cost far greater to them than others9. The post partition economic situation, famine induced starvation and residual communal violence merely changed the location of the difficulties Namasudras would face from the East to West. The very State, which once sought alliances with the Namasudras, eventually employed measures to evict and purge them from the West as they rallied for their rights. They encountered financial sanctions, political imprisonment, police brutality and sexual violence. Many still await political and legal recognition as Indian citizens10.
Caste-based discrimination is not only a problem in a country thousands of miles away from us. Prejudice and discrimination also affect the 250,000 Dalits for whom UK is home, where there is an overall population of 4.5 million South Asians11. Studies have concluded that notions of “untouchability” and its underlying ideologies not only migrated with the diaspora but they actively persist with discrimination occurring within the educational, health, professional, religious and personal spheres.
The British Government amended the Equality Act 2010 (Section 9) to make caste an aspect of race, thereby making caste discrimination effectively a form of racial discrimination. However, caste discrimination does not have legislative protective measures that explicitly prohibit it. The current framework of handling caste discrimination is via case law provides insufficient protection for the victims as the Courts may have varied interpretation of the Equality Act 2010 with reference to caste.
The half-hearted attempt at giving a legislative power to outlawing cast discrimination has led to the reluctance of victims to take the legal course of action and as such, there remains only one case, Chandhok vs Tirkey (2014)12. Other barriers to seeking legal aid include pressures from social groups, fears of retaliation and of course the financial implications associated with litigation.
For social justice to be upheld with respect to caste discrimination in the U.K., the law must be clear, as must the path towards it, which unfortunately, is simply lacking in the British legal discourse. The importance of a robust legal framework accepted and adhered to within the community are paramount to social equality and justice. Ambedkar said,
“If the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no Law, no Parliament and no Judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word”.
The U.K. does not have adequate legislative framework at present and thus the real journey of educating and socially normalising the wider community remains a distant dream until the former is realised.
The world is not a disconnected phenomenon. We can no longer remain in our ivory towers and look down on caste discrimination as “a problem of the East”. India is a major economic power and we have business, political and personal affiliations with it. To choose the path of silence is a passive complicity and acceptance of the breaches in Dalit human rights, be it home or across international waters.
- Dirks NB. Castes of mind. New Delhi: Permanent Black; 2003.
- Rodrigues V. The essential writings of BR Ambedkar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press India; 2004.
- The Constitution of India. India; 1950.
- Roy A. The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi. Haymarket Press; 2017.
- Heath B. The impact of European Colonialism on the Indian Caste System. E-International Relations; 2012.
- Riser-Kositsky S. The political intensification of the caste system: India under the Raj. Penn History Review. 2009; 17 (1): 31 – 49.
- Ambedkar BR. Dr Ambedkar on the British Raj. Edited by DC Ahir. New Delhi: Blumoon Books; 1997.
- Singh K. Train to Pakistan. New Delhi: Penguin Books India; 2009.
- Dwaipayan S. How the Dalits of Bengal Became the ‘Worst Victims’ of Partition. The Wire: History. 2009. (https://thewire.in/history/partition-dalits-bengal) (Accessed August 2020)
- Bandyopadhyay S. Partition and the Ruptures in Dalit Identity Politics in Bengal. Asian Studies Review. 2009; 33 (4): 455 – 467.
- International Dalit Solidarity Network. Country profile UK. (https://idsn.org/countries/uk/) (Accessed August 2020)
- Ford M. Caste discrimination under UK law. Oxford Human Rights Hub: Equality and none discrimination. 2015. (http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/caste-discrimination-under-uk-law-chandhok-v-tirkey/) (Accessed August 2020)